Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Classic Albums: Uncle Tupelo, "Anodyne"
I owe my love of Uncle Tupelo to the long-gone Request magazine, which I used to get free with a purchase at Musicland. I relied on magazines like this, because I lived in an isolated Nebraska town before the internet. Sure, I could see videos of underground acts on MTV's 120 Minutes, but one interesting video could often get me to buy an album that turned out to be a disappointment (I'm looking at you, Catherine Wheel.) I craved the opinions of critics, and Request had Jim DeRogatis, who is still worth listening to.
One issue had a big feature article on Uncle Tupelo, a band I'd never heard of before, mostly because their brand of alt-country was not the kind of thing that 120 Minutes' grunge-centric programmers would play. Not having heard a lick of their music, I wanted to buy their latest album because the article showed the band to be small-town Midwestern working and middle class guys with progressive politics. On the cusp of graduating from high school I was dogged by the dilemma of how to move beyond my upbringing while staying true to the best of my roots, and these guys seemed to have figured it out. I had spent my high school years cultivating an outsider persona in my small town, listening to The Clash and reading Kerouac and Burroughs while proclaiming myself to be a socialist. This article was the first time that I ever knew there were other people like me in other Midwestern towns, still sticking around despite their iconoclasm.
I bought Anodyne without having heard a solitary note, but was immediately entranced within ten seconds of "Slate." Its high, mournful fiddle took Hank Williams and filtered it through the moodiness of The Smiths. It was a complete revelation that country music, a style I had spent years trying to escape from, could reach the melancholy places in my soul the same way that Morrissey and Marr had done to console my teen angst. Things get more up-tempo on the bluegrassy "Acuff-Rose," a celebration of old time country music and one of the best expressions of the joy of song I know.
After these two fiddle-heavy tunes, the record shifts into thrashy, punky territory on "Long Cut," as it also does two songs later on the angst-ridden "Chickamauga." I never been absolutely sure what the latter song was about, but the way Jay Farrar sings "I don't ever want to taste these tears again" has made it a go-to for me over the years to crank up whenever I'm feeling beaten down by life. These rocking songs, just like more traditional "Slate" and "Acuff-Rose," display the split songwriting duties in the band between Jeff Tweedy ("Acuff-Rose" and "Long Cut") and Jay Farrar ("Slate" and "Chickamauga"). The band eventually would not be able to accommodate both of them, and Uncle Tupelo split up into Tweedy's Wilco and Farrar's Son Volt.
With the benefit of hindsight, Tweedy obviously went on to greater acclaim, even if Son Volt's first record was superior to Wilco's (a story for another time.) Wilco might be the most critically-admired band of the last fifteen years, and Son Volt is an afterthought (though they've released some great stuff.) Up until this album, however, Tweedy was obviously the junior partner in the relationship, but on Anodyne, his contributions are at least as good as Farrar's. "New Madrid" is a catchy and amusing song about false predictions of new earthquake on the Missouri fault line that brought the national media spotlight on a rural town. "We've Been Had" is a poppy rocker prophesy of the type of songs on Wilco's breakthrough Being There album. ("There's no call waiting on my head phones" is just one of many great lyrical bon mots in this song.) "No Sense in Loving" recalls old timey country songs about heartbreak but has a jauntiness that belies its lyrics. In general, Tweedy's songs are a little more light-hearted and poppy, something that's surprising considering that this man will later be known for pain-fests like "She's A Jar" and arty, Can-influenced songs like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)."
Farrar has always been something more of an Eeore figure, with a keening voice to match his world-weary lyrics. I must say, being the junior depressive I was at the time, I preferred his songs when I first bought the record. "Anodyne" uses steel guitar to maximum mournful effect in the strongest ballad on the album, a sound replicated on the quiet "High Water." These two songs always make me think of those sitting at my parents' kitchen table, looking out at the impossibly huge sky of my homeland, and feeling suffocated beneath its weight. The more up-tempo "Fifteen Keys" speaks to the feeling of being out of place, and "Steal The Crumbs" closes the album out on a wistful note using the traditional country sounds of "Slate" that opened the album. In-between all this Farrar and Tweedy join the great Doug Sahm, pioneer of the alt-country sound, on a stomping, carefree cover of his "Give Back The Key to My Heart."
Little did I know back in 1993 that I was witnessing the last time that Farrar and Tweedy would create together. Anodyne is a special album for that reason alone, and one that to this day has yet to be topped by the alt-country bands it helped inspire. I also cherish it as a relic of a secret rural Midwest, one populated by rebels against Reagan's America who loved Johnny Cash and Johnny Rotten with equal measure. Since leaving my hometown I've been lucky enough to know other folks from this secret Midwest, to learn that I was not alone.